The Times’ ad Cut Through The Noise and the “difference that makes the difference”
Back in 1972, anthropologist and semiotician Gregory Bateson made famous his idea of the “difference that makes the difference” in a talk titled “Form, Substance, and Difference”. Using the maxim that “the map is not the territory” as a basis, he stated that the “differences” are the key features that become parts of the “map”, the ones that provide meaningful information.
It makes a lot of sense. Imagine a map that was of equal size to the territory it represents and that had every single detail – from houses, to hills, to the smallest stone – included in it. It would be not just inconvenient but pointless. A map is useful because it contains only the pieces of information, i.e. the “differences”, that are necessary for navigating the territory.
A while back, The Times & The Sunday Times released this awe-inspiring advertisement where the creators took this idea of the “difference that makes the difference” to its extreme:
With this advertisement, the times wanted to convey the message that they select only the stories that matter and that are important and relevant, something worth highlighting in the current milieu of (often unreliable) information overload and fake news.
What I love about this ad is that the creators haven’t just thrown some nice slogan on top of news footage. They’ve actually dramatised their message through a very clever combination of image and sound.
To do so, they used metaphorically the concept of signal-to-noise ratio. This is a term commonly used in sound engineering to compare the levels of a desired audio signal to the levels of unwanted background noise.
In this metaphor, the desired signal stands for useful information and the noise for irrelevant or unreliable information. The newspaper’s claim is that they ‘cut through the noise’ at a ratio of 1:0, i.e. with no noise.
This has been dramatised through the soundtrack, where everything has been eliminated apart from one isolated sound singled out to focus our attention on what’s important about the footage.
The selected sound works kind of like a metonym, a figure of speech where a part is chosen to represent the whole. It has been carefully selected to point to the wider social and/or political affair the moment captured in the footage is representative of.
For example, the singled out footsteps of Donald Trump walking into one of his noisy rallies might be pointing to his isolationist policies? In the segment where the police are running up the stairs, all you hear is the sound of the cartoons on TV, pointing to the wider issue of child abuse or exploitation perhaps? Then there’s the airport with families everywhere and armed police walking around. All you hear is the police radio transmissions, pointing supposedly to the issue of national security. I’m not sure what the sound of birds point to in the segment showing an aerial shot of an area devastated by war, but the juxtaposition is striking and thought-provoking for sure.
The thing is that this advertisement does make you work hard. It’s not straight forward. It doesn’t spoon-feed you. On the contrary, it makes you think – another message about the newspaper’s brand that they’ve shown, not told. A stroke of genius.